Riot is the modern reaction to capitalism, in the same way strikes were in the past.


On August 4th 2011, 29-year old Mark Duggan was shot and killed by the police in Tottenham, North London. In the days after the police killing, peaceful demonstrations against the police’s lacking response to the case was followed by increased protests, with riots spreading to other parts of the country. Between the fourth and 11th of August, arson, plundering and window smashing occurred in some of London’s poorest areas including Lewisham, Tottenham Hale, Tower Hamlets, and in cities outside London such as Liverpool, Nottingham, Manchester, Leeds, Leicester and Coventry. As the riots spread, the police instigated a counteroffensive which, among other measures, resulted in mass arrests and stricter sentencing. An analysis by The Guardian (18th August 2011) revealed that around 1,000 convictions related to the riots were given 25 percent longer prison terms than other, similar offences. The strict sentencing displayed a common view of riots per se – not only among the conservative right wing, but also amid the majority of an organised left segment – riots are most often equated with plundering, vandalism and violence.

Strike versus riots. One of the problems as discussed by Joshua Clover in the book Riot. Strike. Riot – The New Era of Uprisings, is that rioting as a collective form of reaction lacks an adequate crisis theory. It is only positioned as a direct opposite to strikes. Where the reactions of the labour movement traditionally demonstrate a clear political organisation demanding better wage conditions and workers’ rights, the rioters’ call for social and political change seems devoid of this. Clover claims that when riots contrast with strike actions, they are reduced to an apolitical disorder where no one seems to know what they want anymore. Despite this, riots are advancing and labour movement strikes retreating. The 2011 riots which began in Tottenham, London, is only one collective action in a series of riots which now can be said to trace its roots back to Watts, Newark, Detroit. There is a line going from Tiananmen Square in 1989, to our own time with Säo Paolo, Gezi Park and San Lazaro. The list is extensive: Clover gives examples of the proto-revolutionary riots in the Tahrir Square, as well as Clichysous-Bois, Oakland, Ferguson and Baltimore. He also describes student occupations such as the one in the Tory headquarters on London’s Millbank in 2010. On the whole, writes Clover, the list of modern day riots goes on and on.

It is futile to operate with a too narrow understanding of the term proletariat.

A given historical context. Clover prepares a suitable riots crisis theory based on a historical-materialistic method integrated with an understanding of the practice of the struggles. He is critical of socialist theories with program texts and detailed instructions on how to fight the State and Capital – these are based on the vague premise that this proved successful once upon a time. For the same reason, the recruitment problems of unions and leftist organisations are not explained with a general lack of resolve or a liberated labour conscience. According to Clover, the relationship between riots and strikes must be viewed in a given historical-material context for each individual reaction form. Seen within the historical periods, both practices are related to Market and Capital: the pre-modern riot was the precursor to capitalism’s industrial revolution which founded the strike and workers union. The practice of rioting relate to market, price and distribution, whilst the strike is closely linked to salary struggles and capitalist productions. In the 1700s, with food shortages and price inflation, a shipping blockade stopped the export of necessary subsistence means from the local markets. In the transition from feudal to capitalist society, collective values become subordinate to an imperative profit. The tenants of the feudal society are driven into a proletariat missing out on land ownership and dependent on waged work for survival. No job meant the law of poverty. But, as Clover mentions, zero salary is also a salary in that it works as an important supplement to keep alive the reserve labour army.

Riots instead of strikes.

The superfluous. The movement from riots to strikes correspond with the industrial revolution and waged work at the start of Great Britain’s lengthy 1800s. The following transition from strike to great revolt belongs, as Clover explains it, to the hegemonic resolution in the USA at the end of the 1900s and to the «prime circulation» crisis. We are now in the midst of the catastrophic autumn of capitalism where growth and profits have reached saturation. Capitalism has corroded into financial expansion and monetary circulation. In this phase, human labour becomes increasingly redundant and relegated to an informal economy with temporary contracts, odd jobs and blood sucking credit systems in a downward poverty spiral. According to Clover, the current overpopulation helps fuel global rioting. Unlike the labour struggle, today’s riots are not solely for the workers, as with the strikes. It is rather the lack of, or the deprivation of, resources and private property which unifies all rioters – in the streets, on the barricades and those plundering. Overpopulation leads also to racial discrimination in the western world. Capitalism has always produced and reproduced social discrepancy in the labour market through wage inequality. This can be seen in the double figures unemployment rates among African Americans compared with the national average. In the USA, the African American population is being made systematically superfluous in parallel to the expansion of its prison industry. Simply, this is racial discrimination of unwaged lives.

The proletariat as negation. In summary, Clover’s issue is that it is futile to operate with a static and narrow understanding of the term proletariat. The struggle of the proletariat cannot just be seen in relation to the strike as a form of reaction. Nor should the gradual decline of the workers’ movement be lamented.  On the contrary, the comprehensive riots need to be taken seriously and our understanding of them apoliticised. The question of race is subordinate a greater hostile totality of a wider sense of the proletariat. Clover uses Gilles Dauvés’ description of the proletariat rather as a negation of society, a population without resources – which in Marx’ sense have nothing to lose but its own chains. But, what does this mean? The consequence is that the proletariat is unable to free itself «without simultaneously destroying the existing social order» in its totality.